Sketchnotes Case Study: Building Your Email List (and mistakes to avoid)

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Earlier this year, I pivoted my blog to talking about sketchnotes. If you’ve been following this mini-series on ConvertKit, you know that I struggled with that decision, because I had put so much time into my old site. But the reality was the old site wasn’t growing, and had stagnated around 500 subscribers.

Before sharing the strategies I’m using to grow the new sketchnote blog, I want to tell you the two biggest mistakes I made that kept my old site from growing.

Mistake 1: Undefined topic or niche

For years, I blogged about whatever came to mind. I wrote about fitness, productivity, writing, and many other topics. I was unfocused, and it drove people away. It wasn’t that the writing was bad, but people didn’t know to expect from me. They might find me because of fitness post, but then in the next email I’m sharing writing strategies, or vice versa.

Early on, it’s easy to feel like you can write about anything. But I encourage you to choose a topic as soon as you can, it will help your growth exponentially in the long run!

Here’s why. People need to know what to expect from you. I think of it even like a reader is trying to explain my blog to someone else. What would he or she say I’m all about?

Before: “Matt’s blog is pretty great, he writes about fitness… but also writes about writing… and sometimes productivity… and other times about being a dad…”

Now: “Matt writes about sketchnotes and visual thinking. It’s fun because I learn on how to take notes differently and remember more information!”

See what I mean? It’s so much clearer. I had to plant my flag in the ground on a specific topic, and because of that I’ve grown my sketchnote blog as fast this year as I had the 2 years before.

Mistake 2: No compelling incentive to sign up

When readers went to my old blog, they just saw the standard sidebar form of “Get updates via email”. This was not compelling, especially for people arriving on my site for the first time! A new reader didn’t know if they wanted to read one of my posts, much less have new posts emailed to her.

I had to craft a more compelling incentive that would deliver valuable information from the start. Combined with a focused topic, it will help any new reader with a clear way they can move forward. The best way to do this (in my opinion) is with an email course of 5 lessons.

Even for a new blog, this is totally doable. I talked about it in the last post, but you just need to ask yourself one question:

“What do I wish I knew about my topic when I started?”

For me, I came up with several answers that gave me a starting point for teaching. People who came up to me and asked about sketchnoting were in the same place I was in 2012. The answers provided the basis lessons that I share with people in the email course.

So tell me, which is more compelling?

CTA 1: Join the newsletter
CTA 2: Get 5 free lessons on creating sketchnotes


Growing your email list from scratch

If you’ve been reading the ConvertKit blog, you know the benefits of using tactics like content upgrades, a free email course, and giveaways. I won’t go too deeply into those, you know they work and should definitely use them to grow your list!

The clearer you can be with what the reader will learn from your content, the better off everyone will be. Even if it’s not the right fit for them, everyone will know that on the front end. You’ll have more engaged subscribers that are eager for your next post.

Next month, we’ll talk about how having the right type of engaged subscribers is way more valuable than having  just any subscriber. This is where your start to build that base.

Here are a couple stats to show you how important having a clear message is.

sketchnote formstats

Conversion rates on forms of 38% and 33% are really good. Most are under 5%, no matter what traffic level you have. Most people just don’t opt in right away. Unless you’re very clear with them what they are getting, and are going after the right audience for your incentive.

The customized course pack strategy

This is the number one method I’ve used to grow my list this year, and it’s been paying off big time, even as I build up my traffic. Here’s what I do.

Conferences were the first place I started to sketchnote and are the number one way people find out about my work. It would be easy to still share my starter course with people or send it to conference organizers, but I decided to take it a step further.

First, I duplicated my starter course and made a small tweak in each lesson to make it more about sketching live at conferences. I then added a whole new lesson on how to use your sketches to connect with the speakers you are sketching. I’ve found that speakers love to see their talk shown in a new way, even if you think you suck at drawing.

Remember, we want to be as clear and specific as possible. Saying “this is for conferences” instead of “this is for everyone” is a big mental shift, even though the content is mostly the same.

Quick start guide to conference sketchnotes

To make it even more compelling, the conference pack also included a ready-to-use speaker template the subscriber could print for their sketchnotes.

Now I send these customized packs to any conference I attend (the form stats above were from WDS), and even ones that I don’t and just see a fit with attendees. With that kind of specificity for the attendees, conversion rates in the 30s are not uncommon!

The upgraded (and customized) guest post strategy

I first read about the upgraded guest post strategy from Nathan, ConvertKit’s CEO. He wrote about it in his book Authority, and it’s a great way to grow your list! Basically, most guest posts will allow you 1-2 backlinks in the bio after your post. Instead of just linking to your homepage, link to a landing page with your free email course! Like the one I have here:

But I wanted to take it a step further, and customize the course even more for the audience I was writing to on the blog. If it was a post for course creators, change the content a little for them. If it was a post for bloggers, adjust the details for them too. As an extra bonus, I also included a small sketched icon pack they could use.

My biggest lesson in growing an email list

It sounds counter-intuitive, but the more focused and specific my courses were, the better they performed. It may not have brought the big flood of subscribers yet, but I know that each of these sub-topics in sketchnotes are bringing in engaged readers who are actively interested in  what I have to share.

For more proof, the initial starter course enjoys a robust 51% open rate for all emails!

Sketchnote starter results

When I made the switch this month down to a more concise 5 email course, the numbers went up even more to just under 65%.

1st 5 Sketchnotes results

I want you to see that there are often small but important tweaks you can make to your courses and content upgrades that make it more appealing to the specific audiences. Finding those small tribes of potential subscribers can be one of the most impactful things you do for your business.

Matt, no offense, but this is less than 500 subscribers…

Yeah, you got me. It’s a long game to build an email list, and I’m still implementing some of these strategies myself! Next month I’m doing my first sketchnote giveaway, including my favorite books, notebooks, pens, and more! I always tell my email friends about it first, so if it’s something you want to know about, sign up for the free course and you’ll know right away!

Honestly, I’m not worried though, because you can still make money on less than 500 subscribers. Next month, I’m going to show you exactly how I do it.

Until then, happy list building!

Matt Ragland

Matt is a coach at heart, so he loves helping people build their audience and business with ConvertKit. Matt leads Onboarding and Training to help people get started and comfortable right away. He lives with his wife, son, and chocolate lab in Nashville. You should check out his vlog at

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